I Found It at the JCB

This month

August 2010


Devota Novena, Puebla de los Angeles, 1784.
Original in the John Carter Brown Library.

‘Every Superstition Shall be Removed’ ? 
Picturing the Holy Trinity in the Devota Novena, 1784

by Lisa DeLeonardis

Among the challenges faced by Catholic Church leaders in the years of the Counter Reformation was the translation of church doctrine into visual images that best conveyed theological and pedagogical concerns. On the agenda at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) were recommendations about the correctness of religious art which was advocated to be ‘without superstition,’ or ‘confusedly arranged.’ Although the Council’s decrees lacked practical specificity, thereafter, works of religious art would be subjected to the bishop’s approval and Inquisitional scrutiny. These measures were largely embraced in Latin America but were unevenly applied, resulting in novel interpretations and iconographic arrangements, otherwise censored in Europe.

At the forefront of the Church’s assault on heretical imagery was the newly formed Society of Jesus whose emphasis on pedagogy and the visual arts was central to their mission in Latin America and elsewhere. Included in their ranks were artists such as Bernardo Bitti (1548-1610) and proponents of emblemata such as Henricus Engelgrave (1610-1670). Engelgrave never set foot in the Americas but Lux evangelica (Antwerp, 1648) and his other books filtered into the libraries of clergy and private citizens alike in Viceregal Peru and New Spain.

While reviewing John Carter Brown Library’s holdings, I came across a small prayer book in which Engelgrave’s Corona de amor (ca. 1777), is included. The book represents a compilation of reprints of novenas and devotional exercises published in Mexico. The first novena is dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Upon leafing through the opening pages, I was taken by a woodcut illustration of the Holy Trinity adjacent to the text.  I immediately recognized it as one that appears in 17th-18th century Cuzco School (Peru) paintings. Unlike the canonic portrayal of the Trinity which shows God as the aged father, Jesus as the young, bearded man, and the Holy Spirit as dove, the Devota Novena portrays the Trinity as three Jesuses, enthroned side-by-side in heaven. I found it curious that an unorthodox image would accompany text that clearly espouses Church doctrine: God as one in essence but three in person – father, son, and holy spirit. There is no mention of the image in the related text. Moreover, that the illustration is bound in a compilation that bears the name of one of the Counter Reformation’s proponents of orthodox imagery poses an intriguing conundrum.

A number of questions are raised by the Devota Novena Trinity that invite further study. It is worth considering that such images were more widely disseminated than originally thought. In 18th-century New Spain, the favored medium appears to be small prayer books which were widely and inexpensively (re)printed. This is supported by two other examples in JCB’s collection: a ‘Trinity Devotional’ printed by Pedro de la Rosa (1792), and a ‘Trinity Novena’ (1850) printed by Luis Abadiano y Valdés. On its title page, the latter bears vague authorship: “by a Jesuit priest.” Both works feature the three-Jesus Trinity alongside canonic text. In the 18th-century Andes, the three-Jesus Trinity is more often seen in paintings and it will be useful to probe the extent to which it appears in printed form. The meaning(s) behind the three-Jesus Trinity is of great interest and provokes inquiry about the role of pedagogical intent, audience response, and cult devotional practices. The discovery of the Devota Novena Trinity and its counterparts underscores the value of engaging with JCB’s collection and the research questions it generates and supports.

Lisa DeLeonardis, Austen-Stokes Professor in Art of the Ancient Americas, History of Art, Johns Hopkins University, was a Charles H. Watts Memorial Fellow at the John Carter Brown Library in the summer of 2010.


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